we took to the woods

I think there is only one way to explain why taking the children and retreating to an unheated cabin in the Swedish forest continues to seem like a viable plan, despite the distance and expense, the separation from A., the odds that we will carve for ourselves a place in the unfamiliar community up there. And as our departure looms — three weeks remain — it is the challenges that come into focus.

The reason is this place, this tight, fumigated, blank, superficial place. I mean not only the dismayingly prison-like cement towers that I grit my teeth to call home, but more broadly, this odd little country where one cannot hang a flyer (new anti-adhesive paint on lampposts is hailed by the local media monopoly as a civic improvement) and where public space increasingly means a retail environment, with all of its manipulative fictions. How particularly damaging for children. After nearly two years, I’ve come to feel there are just two powerful voices echoing across this island, both exclusively top-down and neither very subtle: the various ministries of government, and advertising. Almost no other voices are permitted to carry very far. Only recently have the government’s incessant admonishments to good behavior felt to me like the more patronizing of the two; living in a Goofus and Gallant cartoon feels innocuous at first.

I am not the first to say Thank God for Little India, though the effervescent color and music of the area and its beautiful inhabitants seem under constant threat from the sanitizing and regulating “development” efforts of the central authorities.

Perhaps another reason: I have rehearsed for this. In 2008, when financial uncertainty and the baby blues made ugly Chicago feel even less hospitable, I rented a room way up on the Wisconsin River, and despite the nudists and mosquitoes, it was so good. Then another job crisis the following year, and we escaped the cheerless gray roar of Moscow and landed, astonished at our luck, in a valley full of buttercups, near a creek, with a garden and a hemlock and kind, steady neighbors. My memories from these brief periods are disproportionate in number and intensity. Surrounded by beauty (can’t think of a better word), it becomes possible to abandon the wish-and-wait mentality and live in the present. (I hear you, sister E., about fearing the imminent loss of it all, but I have found that I feed off of the calm of the countryside, protected from the anxieties of loud, dense, concrete places.)

For the past two years I have aimed for patience, quietly suppressing often, often, what feels like my better judgment, the impulse toward uncompromised nature, free-ranging curiosity fed by real universities and libraries, genuine art, unbranded goods, fresh untreated food, feeling complicit every time we make malls and hotels our family entertainment during our precious little weekend hours together, for want of another option (strangely, nobody else here seems to need another option). It sounds melodramatic but I fear those better instincts are shriveled in me now, for lack of use, and in the girls, but I hope not. I used to know how to make bread and build fires.  The girls used to stop and sniff the weather.

So we’re going to the woods. The car’s on the boat, on Friday the movers come to pack a small shipment of favorite things, and then we start counting days. I hope this will be the beginning of something very long and deep.